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Published on Jim Pumarlo (http://pumarlo.com)

Report feats, flaws of high school athletes

By Jim Pumarlo
Created 03/18/2006 - 1:00am
Worthington High School forfeited its football opener this fall as school officials feared whether an inexperienced squad would be in physical jeopardy against its opponent. The team was shorthanded after "a large number of players" were suspended for drinking. The Worthington Daily Globe reported the story, minus player identities. The challenge in verifying student suspensions underscores one of the most illogical laws governing the privacy of Minnesotans. "Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know," March 12-18, underscores the importance of the free flow of information for effective and accountable government. But newspapers face similar challenges in reporting news that is the fabric of their communities. High school sports fall in that category. Newspapers appropriately devote a great deal of resources to reporting athletes' accomplishments. Coaches and players willingly talk about the 200-yard rushing performance on the gridiron or the dominating spikes on the volleyball court. Hesitancy to address the routine "bad" news — a contest-deciding fumble or penalty - is expected. Most disconcerting, however, is the inability of school officials to identify "on the record" athletes who have been suspended for a variety of reasons — from academic and disciplinary to alcohol and tobacco violations. The Worthington story is an extreme example. But suspensions are becoming commonplace. Editors across the state — from International Falls to Marshall and Hinckley to Rochester to Zumbrota - readily share recent instances of suspended athletes. Yet, in most cases, the players remain unnamed in newspaper stories. Missing players can affect a team's performance. That's the primary reason to report their absences. If players are injured, it's news. If they are out for other reasons — a college recruiting trip or a family emergency - that ought to be told, too. There are other reasons for telling the truth: Suspended players, looking perfectly healthy, sit on the bench during a game. Players may miss a game for other legitimate reasons. A general statement — "several players were missing either due to suspensions or injuries" — unfairly brands them all. In most cases — especially those involving tobacco, alcohol or other drug violations — players have a choice whether to be involved in an activity which may result in suspension. Before they can participate in athletics, they sign a contract to abide by rules of the Minnesota State High School League and their local school districts. The overwhelming volume of news about players is "good news." It may involve the winning score, the decisive volley or the perfect dive. Newspapers send the wrong message to young people if they report only the feats that make them heroes and not the mistakes that reveal them as human. In addition, a case can be made for constructing suspensions as "good news." Each report is an acknowledgement that coaches are holding youths accountable for their actions. It's a positive reflection on playing by the rules as opposed to winning at any cost. Many editors have heard the charge that they are sensationalizing suspensions only to sell more newspapers. Such criticism is insulting and nonsense. For those newspapers that are able to track down the names, reports generally are courteous and brief. The issue of suspensions - especially those involving tobacco, alcohol or other drug violations — also should be viewed within the larger context of broader societal concerns. Communities everywhere are stepping up efforts toward education and prevention. Coaches often are among the first to spearhead groups to help athletes deal with everpresent pressures. It's a constructive process when coaches can use suspensions to work positively with youths, and make them better for it. Privacy once again is under the microscope this legislative session with the rising concern over identity theft. Society must strike a balance between the free flow of information and protecting individual rights. It seems ludicrous, however, that we glorify athletes for their feats on the fields and courts, yet are prevented from acknowledging such shortcomings as getting a subpar classroom grade or succumbing to peer pressure. The law needs to be changed. Community newspapers are committed to reporting high school sports in a positive vein. Of all the millions of words written during the course of a high school year, the notation of "suspensions" is minuscule. The strongest reason for reporting suspensions, however, comes from a longtime sports booster who was polled on this issue. He acknowledged the increasing number of suspensions, but hadn't really given much thought to it. Pressed a little further, he said it might be a bit embarrassing to the youth. But, he added, "It's the truth."

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